Two Mormon Missionaries Freed In Russia The Kidnappings Came Six Months After The Country Passed A Law Restricting Small Religions.

Posted: March 23, 1998

MOSCOW — Kidnappers holding two Mormon missionaries abandoned their captives in a field yesterday, four days after seizing the pair in central Russia and demanding $300,000 in ransom, church members said.

The missionaries, Andrew Lee Propst of Lebanon, Ore., and Travis Robert Tuttle of Gilbert, Ariz., both 20, were released just after lunchtime yesterday outside the Volga River city of Saratov. Except for minor head wounds suffered during Wednesday's abduction, they were in good condition.

A spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - also known as the Mormon Church - said no ransom was paid and there was still no clear motive for the abduction.

According to John Strickling, a relative of Propst's, the kidnappers apparently panicked when they learned of the intensifying search for the Americans.

``I think they were amateurs, petty thugs,'' Strickling said. ``When they saw all the interest, it was overwhelming for them. They felt they were running out of time.''

The kidnappings, which came only six months after Russia passed a controversial law restricting small religions, immediately became a high priority in the United States. President Clinton dispatched four agents from the FBI to assist Russian police, and Mormon Church security officers also went to Saratov, about 500 miles southeast of Moscow.

The kidnappings also prompted Sen. Robert Bennett (R., Utah) to speak out sharply against Russia's new religion law, saying it had created a climate in which foreign missionaries were treated with suspicion. Congress long has been critical of the law and has threatened to withhold aid to Russia unless it is repealed.

The law was partly a reaction to the flood of foreign missionaries who came to proselytize in Russia after the collapse of communism. Mormons, who number only about 8,000 in Russia, had been singled out for criticism by the popular Russian politician Alexander I. Lebed, a retired general.

Lebed denounced the Mormon Church as ``filth and scum,'' although he later apologized for the remarks. Some Russians are convinced that foreign religions threaten the country's native Orthodox Christian Church.

``There's definitely the sense that, if the country passed this law, then these kind of missionaries shouldn't be there,'' complained Strickling. ``It makes them targets.''

Kidnappings have been rampant in the war-torn Caucasus Mountain region, but the abduction of the two American missionaries was the first such attack to occur in the Russian heartland. It was also the most serious incident involving foreign missionaries since they were permitted to proselytize in Russia.

After Propst and Tuttle were abandoned by their kidnappers, they walked back toward Saratov until they found a telephone to call police, said Strickling.

The men, who were doing a two-year voluntary missionary program in Russia, spent most of yesterday working with police to try to track down their kidnappers, Strickling said. They called home, he said, and spoke with their families.

The missionaries are attached to the Samara Regional Mission and lived in Samara. They went to Saratov to meet people who were supposedly interested in learning more about the Mormon Church, Strickling said.

When the young men arrived at the apartment where the meeting was to take place, they were struck on the head and taken captive, he said. Later, photocopies of their passports were delivered with a handwritten ransom note to a Mormon Church building.

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